The reason the election is closer than you think is probably you
posted at 9:43 pm on September 10, 2012 by Karl
A subtext of the Allahpundit’s blogging today was a question that seems to be vexing the right: Why is this election close? Specifically, why is this election close given the state of the economy?
And yes, needless to say, it is troubling that a president might be excused for a disastrous record partly because it’s disastrous, but that’s Hopenchange for you. Some swing voters foolishly believed the myth four years ago and a critical chunk of them will be reluctant to admit that they were suckered. (That’s why Romney’s been careful to frame his attacks on O as disappointment, not anger: As an advisor told Byron York recently, they don’t want to be seen as rubbing disillusioned Obama voters’ faces in their mistake.) They’re looking for reasons to think they made a good decision in voting for him the first time, and “no one could have fixed this economy” fits the bill nicely. None of which is to say that Romney can’t win anyway; there are lots and lots and lots of Republican attack ads to come. It’s simply to say that the biggest weapon in his campaign arsenal might not be as big as we think, which might help answer Powerline’s question of why this election, which should be a cakewalk, is so close.
You could make the same point this way: Just how high would unemployment have to be to make this an easy win for Romney and the GOP? Ten percent? Higher? Or, paradoxically, would higher unemployment rates somehow further absolve Bambi of culpability? A million variables inform a voter’s choice but there must be some hypothetical degree of economic lethargy that would make a qualified challenger — and Romney is qualified, whatever else you think of him — a prohibitive favorite. How much pain are voters willing to suffer before turning the dial?
The Allahpundit is only one of many conservative-to-libertarian pundits asking variations on this basic question — and people’s underlying theories or assumptions about the answer colors the way they think about the entire campaign, e.g., what should Team Romney be doing in this environment, etc.
However, answering the basic question probably requires that you look in a mirror. If you are reading this, you are almost certainly someone with a particular political viewpoint and a general functional party affiliation. Indeed, most of you are probably right of center and tend to vote GOP (although some of you are liberal/Democratic and checking out the opposition or just plain trolling). And these basic facts about you probably color your perception of the economy.
For example, take a look at the results from last month’s Gallup Economic Confidence Index:
Most of you will look at that and rightly scoff at the delusional Democrats. But it is also apparent that Independents are not as pessimistic about the economy as Republicans are, either.
This is not a new dynamic. Consider the following from Lee Drutman circa 2010:
To understand the strength of partisan distortion of objective economic facts, consider the following: Between 1980 and 1988, inflation fell from about 14 percent to about 4 percent. But when asked what had happened to inflation over Reagan’s two terms, more than half of “strong” Democrats insisted that inflation had gotten somewhat or much worse over that period, whereas only 8 percent said it had gotten better, according to an analysis by Larry Bartels, a professor of politics at Princeton. For “strong” Republicans, it was pretty much the exact opposite.
“Partisan predispositions exerted a powerful impact on perceptions of ‘objective’ economic events,” wrote Bartels, “not only in the extreme categories of ‘strong’ Democrats and Republicans but over the whole range of the party identification scale.”
Or consider what happened 2006, when Democrats took back control of Congress. Alan Gerber and Gregory A. Huber, political scientists at Yale, found that shortly after the election, Democratic voters reported significantly higher optimism about their economic future and accordingly said they planned more consumption, as compared with just before the election. Republican voters, meanwhile, turned pessimistic and said they planned to tighten their budgets.
If you don’t like Slate, consider Michael Barone, on day three of the Obama adminsitration:
Americans’ views of the economy are increasingly a function of voting behavior or party loyalty, rather than the other way around. The most succinct evidence of this comes from a January 2006 report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press entitled “Economy Now Seen Through Partisan Prism.” As the Pew report notes, during the1992 campaign year and up through 1994 there was a partisan divide on the economy, with about 20 percent of Republicans and less than 10 percent of Democrats rating it as excellent or good. From 1995 to 1998, with a Democratic president and a visibly aggressive Republican Congress, Democrats and Republicans gave similar ratings to the economy. From 1998 to 2000, Democrats were somewhat more positive about the economy than Republicans, at a time when economic growth was vibrant and inflation low.
Then, after the election of George W. Bush, the divergence between the two parties expanded into a chasm. It began to widen during the recession of March-November 2001, and it widened much more as the economy recovered and resumed low-inflation growth. By early 2006, a time of vibrant economic growth, 56 percent of Republicans said the economy was excellent or good, while only 28 percent of independents and 23 percent of Democrats agreed. We have seen similar responses in the years since, although the percentage of Republicans rating the economy positively has dropped somewhat since the subprime mortgage crisis and the decline in housing prices during the second half of 2007. As the Pew Research Center points out, Democrats and Republicans of similar income levels gave sharply different ratings of the economy.
In July, political scientists were busy explaining to Democrats like consultant Noam Schieber that the economic models used to try to explain past elections (and misused to forecast them) tended to suggest a close election favoring Obama on balance. The economy is weak enough to be a drag on Obama’s reelection, but maybe not so much of a drag as to hand it to Romney by itself. That’s probably part of the reason Romney picked Ryan as his veep.
Of course, even the Allahpundit noted Obama’s current poll bounce already looks to be leveling off in the Gallup tracker, so the anxiety on the right is likely overdone, just as the establishment media would prefer. Nevertheless, anyone analyzing the 2012 campaign ought to start from the realization that the economy is probably not bad enough to automatically doom Obama. Conversely, people should recognize that Romney may not be as unlikeable or inept as some seem to believe, even if his campaign may need to do even more now to drive the agenda.